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How the West Destroyed Afghanistan

History got us into this mess. Can it get us out?

Murray Dobbin 3 Oct

Murray Dobbin is an author, commentator and journalist. He is the author of five books and is a former columnist with Financial Post and Winnipeg Free Press. He is a board member of Canadians for Tax Fairness and on the advisory council of the Rideau Institute. He lives in Powell River, BC.

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Canadian soldiers at war

[Editor's note: Second in a three-part series.]

In order to sell Canadians on our war-fighting mission in Afghanistan, the Harper government resorts to using language that reduces the debate to an adolescent level. By constantly repeating phrases like "we can't cut and run" and we won't leave "until the job is done," or "we have to support our troops" or we "can't let the terrorists win" Harper hopes to frame the debate so that nothing substantive ever gets discussed. These are the kind of arguments you find amongst adolescent boys fighting in schoolyards: too immature and too driven by their testosterone to actually think straight about the consequences of their actions.

It might be productive if every conversation about Afghanistan had to begin with a quotation from Benjamin Franklin: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." At least it might lead those discussing the war to delve a little deeper, to examine Afghanistan's social and political structures, its history and, most importantly, the record of the West in creating the current horrors.

As is stands now, we proceed as if Afghanistan was created from nothing on Sept. 11, 2001.

But Afghanistan does have a history. Canada's involvement is part of a 30-year continuum of Western (and Soviet) interference and it cannot be surgically excised and declared pristine in its motives. So long as we ignore this history, we will have more body bags coming home, thousands of innocent Afghanis will die and homes and whole villages will be destroyed -- along with orchards, crops and other means of survival -- by our tanks, mortars and U.S. "air support."

History got us into this quagmire; knowing that history might help get us out.

Importing radical Islam

Afghanistan was not always a country totally dominated by warlords and reactionary Islamic fundamentalism. This brand of Islam was largely imported into the country as part of the U.S.-inspired, Cold War effort to defeat the Soviets. For a brief period, the country had a progressive, secular government which, according to University of Winnipeg professor John Ryan, "affirmed the separation of church and state, labour unions were legalized, health care and education became priorities, women were given equal rights, and girls were to go to school...A program was being developed for major land reform."

That government was put in place following a 1978 military coup that removed an autocratic and unpopular president. Noor Mohammad Taraki, a Marxist (and a university professor, writer and poet) was asked by the army to form a government simply because the Marxists were the only ones who had an actual development program. Tragically for the Afghan people, however, the U.S. was not prepared to allow such a government to exist in the context of the Cold War. The U.S. used the CIA (and the assistance of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) "to provide military aid and training to the Muslim extremists, who became known as the mujahedeen and 'freedom fighters.'" Barely a year later Taraki and his closest associates were killed in another coup. It was after this that the Soviets invaded in support of the government.

Years later, Zbigniew Brzezinski, president Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor, boasted of implementing a plan to tie down the USSR in its own version of Vietnam and to bleed it into submission. According to Ryan: "Brzezinski saw this as a golden opportunity to fire up the zeal of the most reactionary Muslim fanatics -- to have them declare a jihad (holy war) on the atheist infidels who defiled Afghan soil." What followed was the recruitment of thousands of non-Afghan Muslims (including Osama bin Laden) into a 10-year jihad, funded by hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars that destroyed much of the country.

Oil and the Taliban

In 1992, three years after the end of the Soviet occupation, the government was finally defeated and Afghanistan fell into absolute chaos, inter-tribal warfare, drug smuggling and mass rape. In 1994, according to Middle East authority Eric Margolis, "village prayer leader, Mullah Omar, armed a group of 'talibs' (religious students), and set about defending women from rape. Aided by Pakistan, Taliban stopped the epidemic of rape and drug dealing that had engulfed Afghanistan, and imposed order based on harsh tribal and Sharia religious law."

Oil and gas are part of every U.S. intervention in the Middle East, and the U.S. had no qualms about dealing with the Taliban in the 1990s. Washington began to pour millions into Taliban coffers in the hope of signing a contract with U.S. oil giant Unocal to build a gas pipeline south from the Caspian Basin to Pakistan. The negotiations broke down in the spring of 2001 -- just months before 9-11. As for those attacks, they were planned in Germany, carried out by Saudis and were almost certainly done without the knowledge of the isolationist Taliban. When the U.S. demanded that Osama bin Laden be handed over, the Taliban agreed to turn him over to an international tribunal upon seeing evidence of his guilt. But the U.S. had no such evidence. Instead, they invaded.

The government of Hamid Karzai is constantly touted as having been "democratically elected" and it is fair to say that Afghans voted in the election because they hoped it might make a difference. But the Karzai government is totally dependent for its survival on the U.S. and is heavily influenced by the U.S. oil industry. According to Le Monde newspaper, Karzai was a consultant for Unocal during the failed negotiations with the Taliban. Another Unocal consultant, Zalmay Khalilzad, was initially the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan. By May 30, 2002, he had in place a multibillion-dollar contract for a gas pipeline.

A corrupt 'democracy'

Afghanistan's democracy is a fraud and operates more as a grim coalition of mujahedeen, warlords, druglords, oil company executives and U.S. agents. Following 9-11, the U.S. recruited and armed its old mujahedeen creation to help in the task of defeating the Taliban, renaming them the "Northern Alliance." Many of the elected MPs stand accused of carrying out massacres, mass rape, torture and other war crimes. A lengthy 2005 UN report (leaked to the Guardian newspaper) documents these atrocities and names those responsible. According to Afghani MP Malalai Joya, one of a handful of Afghan women legislators, Karzai has also "appointed 13 former commanders with links to drug smuggling, organized crime and illegal militias to senior positions in the police force."

This is the context for Canada's involvement in Afghanistan. When Hamid Karzai visited Canada and told the House of Commons and the Canadian people that our troops are desperately needed in his country, he didn't tell the whole story. And who would blame him?

Vancouver-based journalist Murray Dobbin writes the State of Nation column for The Tyee. Find his previous columns here.

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